Thursday, October 15, 2009

Neighborhood Transformation

Can reclaiming history help rejuvenate a neighborhood?

The Inquirer wrote a rather glowing article earlier this week about how some dedicated Quakers reclaimed and rejuvenated the historic Fair Hill Burial Ground near N. 9th Street and W. Indiana Avenue over the last 16 years, and how neighbors have helped transform the surrounding blocks right alongside it.

The Inquirer reports, the "'badlands' aren't so bad anymore."

Even the blog Uwishunu, run by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, highlighted the site's fall cleanup event planned for Saturday, and linked to a Flickr set of bucolic photos of the burial ground it posted last year.

Really? The official tourism folks are recommending that people visit North Philly? What a refreshing change.

In the 1980s and 90s, the area around the burial ground was a notorious drug market in Philadelphia.

Most of the (white) Quakers had moved away by the 1960s, and by 1980, even the burial ground had fallen out of use. The Quakers sold their 1883 meetinghouse and burial ground to a Baptist church in 1985.

The 4.5-acre burial ground was essentially abandoned, except by the drug dealers. Some neighbors apparently thought the site, with its low grave markers and looping paths, was a pet cemetery.

However, underneath the overgrown weeds rested prominent 19th century abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-1898), a wealthy African American known as the "president of the Underground Railroad." Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), known for her antislavery and women's rights activism, is also buried at Fair Hill.

A biographer of Mott's, Margaret Hope Bacon, "rediscovered" the burial ground in the 1980s, and rallied fellow Quakers to buy back the burial ground in 1993. Meanwhile, resident Peaches Ramos rallied neighbors to reclaim the streets.

After $1 million of investment and years of volunteer efforts, Fair Hill Burial Ground is cleaner, safer, and host to gardening and educational programs. The neighborhood is safer too.

Is it a coincidence that the neighborhood's and the burial ground's fates appear intertwined? Put another way: would neighbors have rallied in the same way for a restored pet cemetery?

I doubt it.

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